European society was irrevocably altered as a consequence of the pandemic bubonic plague. It was not only due to the large percentage of the population that died, but that it affected everyone regardless of economic standing, social rank, or church position. Rich, poor, middling class, the clergy from priests to cardinals, and royals, no one was immune. One additional problem for the Jewish people was that they were blamed for the plague and thousands were tortured, killed, or evicted from society, and eventually the country. By examining the number of people who died and how it affected the economic status of the poor, the Jewish people, the Catholic Church, the merchants economy, as well as the arts, the assessment will provide the information as to how much the influence the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, had in European society,
One devastating effect on society was the significant number of people who actually died. The Black Death affected everyone from every social position such as lords and their families, doctors, priests, peasants, children and the poor. This was unusual because the rich were had excellent sustenance in every type of food, they had doctors who were easily available, and were not subject to the same health frailties that the poor suffered from. It was judged necessary to adequately enumerate how many people had died and as an example in Florence it was established that in the “beginning of October that no more persons were dying of the pestilence, they found that among males, females, children, and adults, 96,000 died between March and October.”
The plague was instrumental in the change in the financial economy of the poor and peasant farmers. As many of the poor or poor peasant farmers died there was no one to work the land, so when the first pandemic ended workers were in high demand so those who did survive had unprecedented new opportunities. The peasant demanded more wages, or more property, or equitable recompense and if it was not agreed by the lord then they would go to the next property to be hired by another more reasonable lord. This resulted in peasants and the poor receiving a more liveable wage and so raised their standard of living as “they wanted the oxen, seed, loans quickly and on good terms.” Lords, or those who held manor estates, were affected from several perspectives, for example as if the entire family died then the holdings could go to a completely different family member, or if the heir died it would be left to a second male child changing the family dynasty. If someone from the middling (middle class) who were not rich but did hold property died then another family member would inherit and completely change their lifestyle.
Fear and ignorance caused people to live in terror and they wanted someone to blame. The church could not help so they found someone else, the Jews. The Jewish people were blamed for causing the plague by poisoning the water. Thousands of Jews were tortured, killed, or a few lucky ones were expelled from the country, this was all due to the prejudice and fear of the Christian community. For example, in Germany “in at least two hundred towns and hamlets, were butchered and burnt. The sheer loss of numbers, the disappearance of their wealth, and the growing hatred of the Christians brought German Jewry to a catastrophic downfall”
There was a significant change in the catholic religion. This was due in part not only to the number of the clergy who died but also the fact that they could not cope with the plague or the consequences. They could not answer those who questioned if it was a punishment from God, and they could offer little or no help so the laity lost confidence in the church. As the priests died so did their faith in the church and its leaders, and thus those people who did survive also came to question the viability of the church. Another important aspect of church ritual was the last rites which offered absolution to those who were dying and then after death the ringing of the church bells, however, concern arose and “[s]o that the sounds of bells might not depress the infirm nor fear arise in them” they were not allowed to ring. Others renounced their faith as they felt they no longer cared about committing sins as they were going to die anyway. On the other end of the spectrum was the religious fanaticism of the flagellants who thought that through self-mutilation and punishment would atone for their sins they would be saved from the disease.
Merchants seized the opportunity to charge as much as possible for products. Clothes came to represent rank, so the rich spent more on luxury items, while those who benefited from an increase in their standard of living also spent more. The prices of goods and products were raised, and this was despite the fact that there was a profusion of products available “everything was twice as dear, whether it were utensils, victuals, or merchandise, hired helpers or peasants and serfs.”
A contrasting aspect was the change in the artistic productions. The Black Death, lead to the dark and macabre that was presented and produced during this time in both art and literature. It was fashioned to help people cope with the devastating tragedy that had touched each and every person’s life, for those who had survived had lost family members and friends. People needed, if not an answer, at least an acknowledgment of the severity of the catastrophe. Additionally, the artistic portrayal of a gruesome skeletal death lives to tell the story of the significant influence the bubonic plague had on European society.
- Buonacorsi, Simone. “Pistoia. “ Ordinances for Sanitation in a Time of Mortality”.” The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. 1994. Accessed April 28, 2017.
- Di Coppo Stefani, Marchione. “The Florentine Chronicle.” The Florentine Chronicle. Accessed April 29, 2017. http://www3.iath.virginia.edu
- De Venette, Jean. “Jean de Venette on the Progress of the Black Death.” Lectures on Ancient and Medieval History. February 28, 2006. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://www.historyguide.org
- Marcus, Jacob. “The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook,” Jewish History Sourcebook: The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE. 1998. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu